|By A.D. Freudenheim||
22 February 2004
To judge by his recent interview with Tim Russert, President Bush is extremely unintellectual and (to put it politely) un-smart. For those who watched him, or even those merely reading the transcript, it will be apparent that it is a great challenge for Mr. Bush to string together a series of verbs and subjects into a coherent sentence (let alone one that follows standard rules of grammar). Perhaps it will console the President and his advisers to know that Mr. Bush is not alone in being made to look less-than-perfect merely by opening his mouth in front of a camera. The debate among Democratic primary candidates held last Sunday, 15 February, at Marquette University in Wisconsin, cast into sharp relief the dangers of public speaking even among those whose intellect rivals or exceeds that of Mr. Bush.
As has been the case in all of the debates so far, Senator John Kerry, the increasingly-likely Democratic nominee, appeared weak and uncertain, largely due to his desire to be politic at all times. Senator John Edwards, nipping at Kerrys heels, was more effective, and knew how to take advantage of Kerrys penchant for long-winded answers but also suffered from the ideological confusion that naturally evolves from verbal diarrhea. Governor Howard Dean and Representative Dennis Kucinich were sometimes more direct. Charmingly, the Reverend Al Sharpton stole much of the thunder (and laugh lines) from everyone else, not only by being direct in his answers, but by disarmingly acknowledging that some things are just plain hard to say and yet must be said.
When asked by debate panelist Lester Holt about gay marriage, and how Kerry would vote on a Constitutional amendment that might define marriage as a monogamous, heterosexual union would he vote yes, in support of an amendment, or no, against an amendment the senator replied:
This was clearly not a yes or no answer to a yes-or-no question, so Holt followed-up with:
This is a major social and political issue, and one on which any Democratic candidate is going to face serious scrutiny; Kerrys desire not to answer the question was surely acute and, therefore, his measured answer was probably the one that seemed most justifiable at the time. Yet this is a significant issue, and for those in the audience sitting at Marquette, watching on television, or even reading subsequent news coverage of the debates Kerrys answer resolved nothing. If ones inclination is to oppose gay marriage, Kerrys answer was hardly reassuring; if one believes that the definition of marriage is broader than heterosexual unions, and wants to support a candidate who will, in turn, support gay marriage, Kerrys response likewise settled nothing.
Similarly, when Kerry was asked about whether he feels any responsibility for the war in Iraq because he voted to authorize President Bushs actions, he got bogged down in an over-explanation:
And so, the inevitable follow-up question:
Again, Kerry failed to address a simple question simply. Senator Edwards response to the same question:
Not much better in terms of overall length, but Edwards answered the question with a direct of course, followed by commentary, an improvement on Kerrys rambling inability to say anything meaningful.
Contrast these responses with those of Mr. Kucinich and Reverend Sharpton to a variety of questions. On whether or not President Bush knowingly lied about the evidence concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Kucinich first answered the question with an explanation of how he thinks the Bush administration lied, and followed-up with The president lied to the American people when a clarification was requested. Asked the same question, Reverend Sharpton said:
Sharpton then went on to discuss some of the facts and broader circumstances under which he believes Mr. Bush lied as clearly and articulately as any of the other candidates without losing his sense of humor or the value of a direct answer. Asked about American jobs lost under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Sharpton was, again, direct:
The word unequivocal is not often used in politics, and yet here it is, from the mouth of Reverend Sharpton no less. How sad it is that such direct language the direct expression of ideas and beliefs is so much of the province of the candidates least likely to any electoral success at all, a fact only reinforced by Ralph Naders decision today to enter the 2004 presidential race as well. It seems that politics has a nasty habit of killing the most effective politicians. A few, a rare few, survive, such as Bill Clinton, who was usually politic in his answers, but whose evident empathy aided the emphasis with which he addressed any subject; for Clinton, it always looked like it hurt to answer. Kerry shows no such emotion.
As the leading Democratic candidate, Senator Kerry has a lot going for him, not least a significant level of backing from the party itself. If he is going to face down Mr. Bush, he needs to do more than be politic and play politics: Kerry must pick up the mantle of emotion that made Howard Deans campaign so (initially) compelling, and be willing to meet Mr. Bush not only in a battle of wits but in a war of clear ideas. Mr. Bushs advantage is beyond incumbency it is the anti-intellectual sense that hes a straight talker. His NBC interview shows that he is anything but that. Still, there seems to be a ladder of achievement that politicians live on, and their height and position on the ladder correlates rather precisely with the quality and clarity of their answers to any question, large or small: the higher up they are, the weaker and less direct their responses become. Reverend Sharpton would probably make an awful president for any number of reasons, and Mr. Kucinichs policies might be equally disastrous, never mind that neither candidate is likely to win an election. That said, there is something deeply appealing about hearing them speak truth to power, as the Reverend might put it. Senator Kerrys campaign might be more successful if he stepped down the political ladder a rung or two, and allowed himself, and the American electorate, to hear him at his straight-talking best.
| All candidate quotes are taken from the official transcript for "The Wisconsin Presidential Debate 2004," and are to be credited to TODAY'S TMJ4. The transcript can be found at: http://www.wisconsindebate.com/transcript.asp||
Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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